When it comes to Chicago’s superlative pizza scene, locals understand that for most of the country, one style jumps to mind first: deep dish pizza. And why wouldn’t it? This highly photogenic pie is baked in a deep pan, resulting in tall, dramatic slices with downright unforgettable cheese pulls. Deep dish is about as heavy as it looks, and most Chicagoans tend to limit their intake so they don’t feel too stuffed. Speaking of which, there are sub-varieties in the category of deep dish, the best of which, in my opinion, is “stuffed.” That’s not just a synonym for deep dish; there’s something truly unique about stuffed pizza that sets it apart from its hefty counterparts.
The term “deep dish” really just describes this pizza’s form factor. The pie is formed inside a pan with high walls; the dough is placed on the bottom of the pan and stretched upwards, creating a crust wall. Then it’s layered with cheese and fillings (Chicagoans favor sausage, big time), and the sauce is applied on top just before it’s baked off.
Within the deep dish category lie other sub-categories, like pan pizza, which has a thick, very sturdy crust, and Detroit-style pizza, which, if we’re getting into semantics, can be considered a deep dish pie because it’s baked off in a tall pan (even though its pan is rectangular instead of circular). And then there’s my beloved stuffed pizza.
Stuffed pizza—not to be confused with stuffed crust—is a variant of deep dish, and there are a few things that set it apart (and above) other deep dish styles.
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First of all, it’s almost always tall. Laughing is a natural reaction upon seeing your first slice of stuffed pizza, since it’s likely you’ve never seen anything that even approaches it. (Please, please just refrain from calling it a casserole. It’s pizza, okay?)
Second of all, stuffed pizza features a structural element that the leading deep dish pizza does not: a very thin layer of crust placed on top of the cheese and fillings, which is covered in a smooth tomato sauce prior to baking. It’s that signature paper-thin layer of crust separating sauce from cheese that defines stuffed pizza, and makes it an even more filling meal.
You just have to love the absurd exorbitance of it all. If you can put down more than two slices of stuffed pizza in one sitting, you’re a goddamned champion. Anyone who can insert about a pound of cheese in their stomach and then go about their day is a prime specimen, someone who deserves our respect.
But there’s something really remarkable about that first bite of a stuffed pizza the minute it hits your table. The considerable piping-hot melted cheese and sauce, combined with the carbs, triggers multiple pleasure receptors at once, as if your brain understands on a primal level that this is a rare opportunity to consume all the best things at once. It really is a luxurious experience of excess.
Ordering a small or personal-sized deep dish pizza is a complete and total mistake. The smaller format disrupts the crust-to-filling ratio, leaving you with way too much bread and not enough sauce, cheese, and fillings. Even a medium-sized deep dish pizza isn’t quite right.
In order to enjoy the true deep dish experience, you really need to order a large one, even if your party is small. That way you can really take in the magnificence of a stuffed slice, with its intentionally extreme ratio of cheese to crust. You can always bring home whatever you don’t finish—and it’s rare that a party of any size can finish it all.
Services such as Goldbelly will ship frozen stuffed pizza nationwide from a few different famous vendors, including Chicago’s Pequod’s Pizza and Lou Malnati’s. But there’s one national chain where you can reliably find stuffed pizza on the menu: Giordano’s. My Chicago friends make fun of me for loving Giordano’s since it’s a bigger chain (with locations in nine states), but I firmly stand behind my affection for the place.
Giordano’s is notable for serving a somewhat bready crust (kind of like compressed white bread), and man, this place does not skimp on the filling. I grew up on this pizza, so it’s got a nostalgic spot in my heart and my stomach. The cheese pulls you get from a Giordano’s pie are jaw-dropping.
Both Pizzeria Uno and Rosati’s are Chicago chains that have gone national, but both sell deep dish, not stuffed pizza, if you’re looking specifically for the latter. Beyond the larger chains, though, Chicago expats live all around the country and many have set up their own pizza shops to bring this very specific taste of home to your hometown. Look closely and do some internet research; you might be surprised what you find.
Once you’ve tasted Chicago’s deep dish pizza (either classic, pan, or stuffed), you’ll find yourself thinking about it more often than you’d anticipated. There’s something about it that burrows deep into your brain. But take it from a lifelong Chicagoan: For your money, stuffed pizza is the way to go.